« BREAKING: "San Francisco Futurist" Causes Exploding Heads | Main | New FC: #cleanse »

Get Smart(er)

Big Media #2, my Atlantic Monthly article, hit the web today: Get Smarter (or "Get Smart" in the print edition).

Our present century may not be quite as perilous for the human race as an ice age in the aftermath of a super-volcano eruption, but the next few decades will pose enormous hurdles that go beyond the climate crisis. The end of the fossil-fuel era, the fragility of the global food web, growing population density, and the spread of pandemics, as well as the emergence of radically transformative bio- and nano technologies—each of these threatens us with broad disruption or even devastation. And as good as our brains have become at planning ahead, we’re still biased toward looking for near-term, simple threats. Subtle, long-term risks, particularly those involving complex, global processes, remain devilishly hard for us to manage.

But here’s an optimistic scenario for you: if the next several decades are as bad as some of us fear they could be, we can respond, and survive, the way our species has done time and again: by getting smarter. But this time, we don’t have to rely solely on natural evolutionary processes to boost our intelligence. We can do it ourselves.

This article brings together a number of the themes that infuse my work, from augmentation to environmental threats to the need to have a hand in shaping our own futures. There are a few lines, here and there, that long-time readers will recognize, but there's a lot of new stuff, too, ideas and arguments I've wanted to explore, but have been waiting for this to hit before doing so.

It's been a long wait. A little less than a year ago, Atlantic Monthly editor Reihan Salam asked me to write a piece for the magazine. Initially aimed at the November 2008 issue, it was to be a fairly direct reply to Nick Carr's "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" article of the July/August 2008 issue. Little things like a historic election intervened, however, and my article got bumped; it resurfaced this Spring, when Reihan brought on a terrific editor, James Gibney, to shepherd it through to print.

I'm very happy with the result, and I greatly look forward to hearing your responses and critiques.


I really liked the article; I think it sets a new high-water mark for introductions to accelerating technology. It will probably become the one I refer people to by default.

Speaking of which (given the tone of your article), I think we could use a nice, neat, singularity-agnostic term, for "what's coming"? Do you have one? "AT" for "accelerating technology", maybe?

Thanks, Mark.

The term I tend to use is "catalytic technologies" -- the emphasis there is on the potential to trigger other changes.

Hi Jamais,

I must admit that I have only skimmed the above article, and I plan on reading it in full, and I will be interested in seeing if you discuss how we as a people will try to handle these large, system-wide, subtle, long-term, problems. Do you discuss this in your book on geo-engineering as well?

Given my inquiry, I wonder if you have read the Starfish Trilogy by Peter Watts. Although it's science fiction, the general idea of cognitive augmentation mixed with top-down system analysis of global problems that you mention in this book is in part presented in the 2nd and 3rd books of this trilogy. I would be interested on your insight into it.

I think I will need intelligence augmentation to remember to apply the umlaut in Nöocene correctly every time :)

Great article. Agree that it's awesome primer material for many out there.

"As processor power increases, tools like Twitter may be able to draw on the complex simulations and massive data sets that have unleashed a revolution in science. They could become individualized systems that augment our capacity for planning and foresight, letting us play “what-if” with our life choices: where to live, what to study, maybe even where to go for dinner."

Nice scenario descriptions. Reminiscent of the digital twin, symbionts, avatar assistants, etc. I do think such developments are virtually assured.

"As our capacity to provide that filter gets faster and richer, it increasingly becomes something akin to collaborative intuition—in which everyone is effectively augmenting everyone else."

Moving beyond one degree of separation?

Question: Why no mention of the Flynn Effect in the article? He mentions that better abstractions are critical to human intelligence increase.

You may be interested to check out my post on the importance of simulation (your piece is quoted, of course):


I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts.

Thanks, folks.

Adam, I haven't read the Starfish trilogy; I'll look for it.

Alvis, an early draft did mention the Flynn Effect, but it was cut because the necessary explanations (and caveats) ended up eating too much space. Damn print limitations!

Evolution has no effect on us anymore. The mechanism of evolution only works through the process of reproduction or more directly not being able to produce (you are selected out) or producing more (you add more copies of your genes into the gene pool). Just about anyone can and does reproduce today as opposed to the weak not even making it to reproduction age like in the past. If we were facing problems that directly caused death before reproduction or the inability to reproduce then the good old function of evolution would be in strong effect. Actually it may be reversed today. The more highly educated and in some cases "smarter" are having fewer and fewer children which actually has less impact on the gene pool. It may be that the proportion of "dumb" genes to "smart" genes in the pool is actually going the wrong direction! Also poor families in the US and throughout most of the world are having more children. Many of these children have little to no access to technology at all. Bad vision may be a good example. If it weren't for glasses many of us would have died long ago, probably before being able to have children and pass on our poor vision genes. Now that we have glasses and a much safer surroundings bad vision is no longer a life threatening problem so the genes for bad vision are passed on through reproduction indefinitely. The point is that in many ways we have taken over responsibility for our planet and our own "evolution" from mother nature. We will need to find ways to augment and extend what intelligence we have on our own because mother nature will be giving us no more. Hopefully we will be able to bridge the gap successfully to gain control over our own genes with the tools humanity already has (brains). If not we may be pushing against the invisible barrier of non-evolution indefinitely.


I enjoyed reading this article in the Atlantic - quite provocative and I agree fairly inevitable. I am curious regarding your thoughts, relative to this, of the moral, ethical, and spiritual components that will play a role in how this multi-faceted paradigm evolves.

Keep up the good work!

Hey Jamais, I am a college student. I read your article in one of my classes and I had to write a response to it. I loved it. Good job!

Hey Dami, glad you enjoyed it.

Which class was this for, if you don't mind me asking?

Post a comment

All comments go through moderation, so if it doesn't show up immediately, I'm not available to click the "okiedoke" button. Comments telling me that global warming isn't real, that evolution isn't real, that I really need to follow [insert religion here], that the world is flat, or similar bits of inanity are more likely to be deleted than approved. Yes, it's unfair. Deal. It's my blog, I make the rules, and I really don't have time to hand-hold people unwilling to face reality.


Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Powered By MovableType 4.37